SOCCER

USWNT qualifies for 2023 World Cup, but uncertainty looms

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Sophia Smith (left) scored twice in the USWNT rout of Jamaica in the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

Nine months before the 2019 United States Women’s National Team conquered all comers, it was already a finished product.

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He had yet to secure a World Cup place he would eventually win, but the 11 players who opened a windy qualifying campaign on October 4, 2018 became the core group who triumphed the following summer. Of the 11, 10 have started the opening match of the World Cup; and 10 started the final. They strutted in and out of France with a swagger worthy of a team that had been there, done it.

Three years later, however, the latest version of the USWNT is still trying to figure itself out.

Thursday night, with , and a majority of the 2019 core on the bench or absent, the Americans qualified for the 2023 World Cup with ease. They beat Jamaica 5-0 with plenty of new faces. They have shown the talent that will make them World Cup contenders, if not favorites, next summer in Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps they’ve even introduced a new group of fans to a new group of stars – with 21-year-old striker Sophia Smith the brightest of them all.

But a year apart, this USWNT remains a team in transition, potentially caught between a gradual withdrawal of the old guard and a gradual deployment of its successors. Alex Morgan is fighting to reclaim his starting spot. Rapinoe has embraced her new role as a supersub. Tobin Heath appears to be out of the picture, and Christen Press was on the away roster before he even tore his ACL. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper are injured. Julie Ertz is pregnant. Crystal Dunn recently gave birth to her first child.

And so, with some top youngsters also sidelined, no one — not even head coach Vlatko Andonovski — knows exactly what the 2023 USWNT will look like.

The only certainty is that it will be different. Andonovski came to that conclusion last year, after inertia bogged down the United States at the Tokyo Olympics. He had clung to a core that had already been the oldest at the 2019 World Cup. He named an Olympic roster of 18 women from 17 2019 survivors and only one debutante. This USWNT, as Canadian captain Christine Sinclair said after beating her North American rivals in the semifinals, was “ripe for the picking.”

So, after Carli Lloyd’s farewell tour, Andonovski revised the roster and kicked off what he called “the next chapter”. Morgan and Rapinoe separated for several months. Andonovski has used friendlies and second-rate tournaments to bring in Smith, Trinity Rodman and Catarina Macario, the 22-year-old Brazilian forward who, at the start of 2022, was widely considered the best American player in the sport.

It was, to some extent, a standard stage in the life cycle of a national team, with veterans waiting in the wings to claw back places that the youngsters failed to grab. But Andonovski spoke candidly in February: “It doesn’t mean that all those players who have played well in the past are just going to come back here in the next camp because they did well a year or two years ago. .”

Thus began the evolution. While , Macario won a Champions League and Smith and Pugh soared in the NWSL. “They’re probably the two most exciting players to watch right now in the league,” Andonovski said last month of the wingers. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for a player to come in and take his starting spot right now.”

But Macario, who can play in a variety of attacking roles, tore his ACL. Morgan, 33, is having his best start to a club season.

“When Cat comes back, we’ll see,” Andonovski said this week when asked how he would find space on the pitch for one or both. “If Alex plays the way she is, I don’t know how anyone takes that spot. If Cat does as well as we think, then we’ll have to find a spot for her somewhere.

Rapinoe is also back and can still do things with a soccer ball at her feet that very few women on this planet have ever done.

In midfield, Lindsey Horan has become what Andonovski calls a “true leader”, and Rose Lavelle is more dynamic than ever at his side. But the exact composition of the ideal midfield three, with Ertz likely out until next season, is unknown. Andi Sullivan is currently the first-choice midfielder. Sam Mewis, his sister Kristie and Ashley Sanchez offer more individual advantages, but would force an attacking player into a more defensive role.

And at the back, future centre-back Tierna Davidson also tore her anterior cruciate ligament this spring. Becky Sauerbrunn, the stalwart of all stalwarts, will be 38 when the World Cup kicks off next year. Dahlkemper was disappointed at the Olympics, and Alana Cook and Naomi Girma are relatively untested.

Even behind them, the starting goaltender job appears to be up for grabs – with 2019 veteran Alyssa Naeher and 26-year-old Casey Murphy the top contenders.

Uncertainty is everywhere. The first real task will be to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. That will require a first place finish at this CONCACAF W Championship. Even a defeat in the final, potentially against Canada, would send the United States to a playoff in September 2023.

Then the grandest task size will settle down. The questions will have to start becoming answers. Because the reigning double world champions, who embody the establishment of women’s football, are anything but an established and polished product.

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